The mighty temples of Tikal, whose roof ridges extend far beyond the crowns of the surrounding jungle giants, are one of the most famous symbols of the Mundo Maya.
The first European to see the largest of all Mayan cities was probably the Spanish Franciscan missionary Andrés de Avendaño in 1696, who, fleeing from Tayasal, tried to find a route to Mérida in north-western Yucatán when he got lost in the Petén and stumbled upon an impressive old town with tall buildings that, although largely abandoned, still shone in the splendour of its white plastered facades.
In the course of the Spanish colonial period hardly any new knowledge about Tikal was added to this first impression. It was not until 1848 that Modesto Méndez, Governor of Petén, wrote the first official report of a government delegation that had visited Tikal for 6 days. This report was published in 1853 in the journal of the Berlin Academy of Sciences. Tikal’s first photographs were taken by Sir Alfred Percival Maudslay, who also drew the first map of the city at the end of the 19th century and can be considered a nestor of Mesoamerican archaeology because of his merits in Mayan research.
Before starting the tour through the ruins, one can get an impression of the former size of the city at a model in the new Stelae Museum. Its first buildings date back to the 3rd century BC. The oldest princely tombs are located under the North Acropolis. Only at the end of the 3rd century inscriptions on stelae give information about Tikals rulers and their wars. Still in her childhood, Ix Yo K’in, the only woman among Tikal’s rulers, came to power in 511 (Stelae 6, 12 and 23). With Stele 23 a new style is introduced: The main figure is depicted head-on on the front, while parents and children are depicted in profile on the narrow sides. Tikal’s dynasty ended with the construction of Stele 11 in 869, even though the city was not completely abandoned.
Many sources today indicate a far excessive number of inhabitants of Tikal. However, since at no time all of the building complexes which had been erected at different times and often also built over were inhabited at the same time, a number of 25,000 inhabitants at Tikal’s heyday seems realistic.
Tikal is not only one of the cultural highlights of the Mundo Maya, but also a natural paradise. Among the animal species that visitors can observe here are howler and spider monkeys, wild turkeys, peccaries, anteaters and countless bird species, including parrots, toucans and black-yellow weaver birds, as well as the omnipresent Coatimundis, a native species of coatis that tourists beg without hesitation. The flora of the national park includes giant trees, bromeliads and orchids as well as plant species important for the Mayan culture: The Ceiba tree, revered as sacred, the Amate tree, a fig species whose bark was used to make the famous codices, the Bayal palm, whose fibres were woven into furniture and baskets, or the “Tres Puntas” or “Mano de Lagarto” plant, which belongs to the aster family and has been used and is being used against numerous parasitic diseases, including malaria. The Maya already used a local species of student-flower as protection against mosquito bites. Since 1979 Tikal belongs to the UNESCO World Heritage.